In my last blog post, we looked at what stress is and how it can affect us. In this post, we will look at what we can do to reduce unhealthy levels of stress, and consider the ways in which yoga can help.
How can yoga help reduce stress?
We might not know the origins or triggers of stress, but we will each recognise something we look forward to, something that makes us feel relaxed. Some of these things will be good for us, and some, less good. Getting sufficient sleep, rest, exercise and a good diet will do more for increasing our bodies’ ability to enter relaxation, than practising an hour of yoga off the back of a family-sized bar of Dairy Milk, quadruple espresso, 12 pack of Camels and a whiskey chaser. Don’t get me wrong, these things will make us feel better (temporarily) but, over time, they will only maintain or increase our stress levels (not least because they make us skint and reliant on their use!).
Beyond the immediate calming and restorative effects of practising yoga (having the space and time for ourselves as a start) yoga provides us with some useful tools for dealing with stress. But first we need to set some realistic expectations: there is no quick-fix for stress. Going to a yoga class once a week, or practising every day for a decade, will not make stress disappear. This is especially true if you have yet to improve some of the external factors contributing to stress – you can’t avoid these by practising yoga, but you can become more able to recognise what is unhelpful to your general sense of wellbeing, and more willing to address these things, if you haven’t reached this place already.*
It is also worth noting that practising yoga naturally involves levels of stress. On better days, this will make us feel energised, focused and disciplined. On worse days, we will probably feel reluctant, self-conscious and distracted - but if you are practising yoga on the off-days, as well as the on-days, and you can spot the difference between the two – you are doing it right.
The key thing yoga can do for stress, is teach us how to relax (before you get carried away, you can return that tie-dye crop top back to the very depths of your wardrobe, where it belongs).
Being stressed is easy; we never need to put effort into being stressed, our body just takes over and does all the horrible work for us. Being relaxed on the other hand, is something quite a few of us need to work at. It's much harder for most of us to slow down and relax when we need to, than it is to keep going faster; panic makes us run for the printer at work like we're in an episode of ER, when really most of us are in an unfunny episode of the IT crowd - our email will never have a cardiac arrest (thank goodness!) but, unfortunately, the gift of perspective is not something evolution has built into us yet.
Relaxation is the antidote to stress.** Like stress, being in a state of deep relaxation changes the behaviour of our body: the sympathetic nervous system is ‘sedated’ and the physiological effects of stress are reversed; breathing becomes even and regular; the heart rate becomes slower; blood pressure reduces and the tone of both skeletal and smooth muscle is decreased. But how do we get there?
Attending our breath is one way we learn to replace our stress-inducing habits with some relaxation-inducing habits. When we are stressed we breathe irregularly, quickly, shallowly, or sometimes we forget to breathe at all (viz. "What are you huffing and puffing about?"). In yoga, whether applying full Ujjayi (a slow, smooth and audible breath, directed in and out of the nose), or merely trying to keep the breath even, our breath forms the foundation of movement (as it forms the basis for life): we breathe in, we raise our arms, we breath out, we fold forward etc. To save repeating myself, you can read more about anxiety, breathing and yoga, alongside some simple breathing exercises you can try at home in this earlier blog post.
I'm not going to go into too much detail about asana (posture) practice here - that is a blog series in itself - what I will say is that where we can consider breath to be the foundation of our yoga practice, asana is the bricks and mortar. Whereas we can sometimes get carried away and mistake a 'yoga' practice for a physical practice only, we must not overlook the importance the system puts on developing a strong and stable body, as preparation for developing a strong and stable mind. Yoga takes a pragmatic view: do the groundwork first and then build those castles in the sky.
At the end of each class, we lie in Savasana (or, Corpse Pose - bringing a close/death to our practice, as opposed to the sun salutations that open/bring life to our practice) counter-balancing the physical effort of asana and training ourselves to enter relaxation at will. By lying still, closing our eyes and releasing any effort from our breath, we minimise movement and mental activity to essentially kick-start the process of deep relaxation - this is a lot easier said than done!
In Light on Yoga, Iyengar refers to Savasana as ‘conscious relaxation’, acknowledging that although easy in appearance, this ‘posture is one of the most difficult to master’, as it requires both physical and mental concentration and discipline. This is seconded by renowned teacher and practitioner, Matthew Sweeney, who recounts being told off by Pattabhi Jois (founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa method) for even mentioning the word Savasana:
"Not Savasana! No. Corpse pose advanced practice. You take rest."
How many times at the end of a class have you spent the final few minutes of relaxation thinking about what you want for dinner, or how much you have to do when you get home? But the nature of the practice isn't comfortable or easy, as anyone who has ever had to learn something new, or re-learn a lost skill will attest.
In a nutshell, yoga can tackle stress by increasing our awareness of our breath, our bodies and our minds, which can lead to a reduction in both physical and emotional tension, and increase our capacity for physical and emotional resilience.
This is not as grand, or as unobtainable as it might seem. A student once told me that yoga had helped him to sit still during his commute into a different city that he used to find very stressful.
You can forget the pretzel-shaped poses, Om Shanti's and namaste's; this is what it’s all about.
*Similarly, unless you're a yoga master already, it's unlikely that practising yoga will help you out of homelessness, or feed your family etc. I won't pretend that what I'm writing about isn't the product of privilege.
**But it is not the cure - we need stress sometimes.
- Coulter, H. David, ‘Relaxation and Meditation’ in Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, Body & Breath: California, (2001), pp. 541-594
- Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on Yoga, Thorsons: London (2001)
- Mehta, Silva, Mira and Shyam, ‘Relaxation’ in Yoga: The Iyengar Way, Dorling Kindersley: London (1990), pp. 149-52
- Sweeney, Matthew, Astanga Yoga As It Is, 3rd edition, The Yoga Temple (2005)